Define patriotism

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Remember the Dixie Chicks?

It was March 2003, and in response to then-President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, lead singer Natalie Maines stood on a concert stage in London and said, ”Just so you know, we’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.”

At the time, the Dixie Chicks were the darlings of country music. But after this sentence criticizing the U.S. on foreign soil, “Cumulus Media directed all 42 of its country radio stations to ban the Chicks for a month. In Bossier City, La., children stomped on Chicks CDs before the discs were run over by a tractor. “I think they should send Natalie over to Iraq, strap her to a bomb and just drop her over Baghdad,” one talk radio caller suggested.

And this was just the start. A mob of conservative voters, media, and country music fans descended to declare Maines and her band unAmerican, unpatriotic, and went all-in to destroy their career.

Fast forward to July 16, 2018. Almost four years to the day that the Russian military shot down a civilian airliner over eastern Ukraine, killing 298 innocent people, the president of the United States stood amicably next to Russia’s president—on foreign soil—and inexplicably denounced U.S. intelligence services, his own hand-picked senior advisors, and the justice department for the word of one man: Russia’s President Putin.

How can anyone explain this?

“My people came to me, [Director of National Intelligence] Dan Coates, came to me and some others they said they think it’s Russia,” Trump said, sounding bored by the questions. “I have President Putin. He just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be … I have great confidence in my intelligence people but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”

Unlike the flurry of outrage over a country music band, there has been what can only be described as a muted response from conservatives. What’s the big deal, they seem to say, of our president’s nonchalance in taking the word of former KGB spymaster Putin.

But where, I wonder, might this rank on the scale of patriotism?

In an interview with CNN, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul relegated all criticism of Trump’s remarks to “Trump derangement syndrome,” and when “asked if he trusted the US intelligence community over Putin, Paul initially declined to respond, instead lamenting the power of the intelligence community and calling for increased checks on its authority.”

On his website, FOX’s Sean Hannity called the response to Trump’s Putin meeting a “liberal meltdown,” while Rush Limbaugh labeled it simply “comedy gold.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell put out a tepid, “The Russians are not our friends, and I entirely believe the assessment of our intelligence community,” but refused, as per usual, to mention the president by name.

And yet, conservatives tend to have a penchant for patriotism tests.

The Dixie Chicks failed with one sentence, “we’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.”

And who can forget when Michelle Obama said, during her husband’s 2008 campaign, ”For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback”? She was referring to seeing so many people coming out to vote, but conservatives quickly twisted her into their poster-woman for anti-Americanism, and it stuck.

President Trump often rails about how Democrats don’t love this country, tweeting things like, they “don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants … to pour into and infest” the U.S. What does this mean, and where is the evidence for such a ludicrous accusation?

Dear Trump supporters:

Define patriotism. Is it flying an American flag at your home? Is it wearing the proper lapel pin or or setting off fireworks on the 4th of July? Is it, as conservatives told the Dixie Chicks in 2003, “Shut up and sing”?

On the world stage this week in Helsinki, Finland, the president you support defamed and diminished the standing of Americanism, our intelligence agencies, his military advisors, and the Department of Justice to take the unproven word of our greatest adversary.

Where, I ask, is the patriotism in that?

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Our quadrant of the heavens

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I no longer remember where my locker was, or where I sat in Mr. Wittenborn’s class, or the exact sound of the halls echoing after the last bell in the old Notre Dame on Ritter Drive.

Memory fails. But come August, the Class of ’83 will gather like we always do to celebrate our 35 year reunion. To jar our memories back to life.

“Every person is born into a particular quadrant of the heavens,” Phyllis Theroux wrote in The Book of Eulogies. “Our friends hang like companion stars around us, giving us point and direction. We run to them when we have something to celebrate…” And nobody, I mean nobody, got more excited about celebrating than Chris, the class president we elected way back on the lark of 17 year-old kids.

For three solid decades, Chris would start calling, texting and emailing us months, or even a year, in advance of reunion time. “I can’t believe we still have to wait a whole year!!!” he would write with his trademark exclamation points. “Why can’t we have a reunion every year?!!”

If you have ever been in charge of planning a reunion, you know it can feel like herding cats; statistics say less than 30% will ever attend, citing everything from, “I hated high school” to “I’m too fat, too bald, too gray” to “I’m ashamed of (fill in the blank).”

Our class was no different. We were, we are, just has flawed as everyone else. And yet 80% of us have shown up over three decades. Why? Because Chris was tireless.

It broke his heart when any of us went missing, and he made it his mission to bring every last one of us back. He found Ellen in Arizona and Steve at Kelso Supply and Lisa in Arkansas and Mark in the balcony of St. Mary’s and Jay in Louisiana … and so on.

Five years ago, in the run-up to our 30th, he wrote this to me: “Post cards are printed, labeled, and ready for stamps. We are getting closer!!!” Followed immediately by, “WHERE IS PENNY?!?! SHE HAS TO COME!!” then, “My toes are crossed! It’s not a party without Penny!”

He was right. It’s not a party without Penny. It’s not a party without the whole lot of us:  without Penny and Joe doing the Stray Cat Strut; without us kicking off our shoes like maniacs while shouting, “I’ll hang around as long as you will let me”; without the choir of us singing every last word of Hank’s Family Tradition.

You may be thinking all of this sounds stupid. But as the great Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them.”

Amen to that.

“There are friends one makes at a youthful age in whom one simply rejoices,” William Styron wrote, and on August 10 we will do just that. There will be tired, raspy voices from all the singing and catching up; there will be cheekbones stiff from all the laughter; there will be worn out knees and feet from all the dancing; and there will be real sorrow on Sunday when the time comes, as it always does, to say goodbye.

Only this time, there will be no Chris.

After our 30th in August 2013, he sent me this message: “Are you home safely, my friend? I miss you. I LOVE our reunions and I LOVE my friends!!!”

Chris died 10 weeks later. This was the last reunion message I ever got.

Memory fails, but so what. We are 53 years old. It no longer matters if we remember where our lockers were or where we sat in class or what the old halls sounded like after the last bell.

We were born to be together, as Theroux wrote, in our particular quadrant of the heavens. It’s reunion time. The band is playing our songs. And Chris—our beloved Chris—will be with us in his great big spirit, his companion stars now shining from on high, suspended from the heavens, exclamation points and all.

Open season on journalists

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Photo credit: The Greenville News, June 25, 2018

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The first time it happened, I was trying to pay my bill at the veterinarian’s office. I had just put my cancer-ridden 14 year-old yellow lab to sleep, and the new clerk was struggling with the computer, apologizing, asking me again and again to repeat my full name. Soon enough the gentleman in line behind me started-in. “Jesus,” he said at first, making the poor clerk more nervous than she already was, then he turned to me. “I know a Teri Carter,” he said with disgust. “I know you. Woman from the paper.” He paused and leaned in. “Because I read, you know. I reeead the paper.”

I turned and smiled and, not knowing what to say, I clumsily thanked him. But he kept on.

This is what it’s like to write about politics in the Age of Trump. Public confrontations. Threatening emails. Social media attacks. And I am the smallest of small potatoes. Stories like mine are a puny little pinprick compared to what national reporters endure.

Imagine the president denigrating any other American job—your job, maybe—the way he does journalism. Factory workers are very dishonest people! Farmers are #FakeFarmers, not nice! So funny to watch teachers and nurses, among the most dishonest groups of people I have ever dealt with!

Would you, would any of us, stand for this?

Last summer I met writer Jared Yates Sexton. He was traveling through Kentucky, and we spent one long evening on my back porch sharing stories of harassment. Following the murder of five journalists at the Capital Gazette last week, Jared wrote in The Globe and Mail, “I’ve had people show up at my door and try to break into my house, have received phone calls describing gruesome torture and have been sent many messages and pictures detailing how anonymous individuals would like to murder my family and myself. This harassment has come in waves, but regularly emerges whenever I’ve published an article on Donald Trump or the cesspool of white supremacists who worship him as a ‘God Emperor’ and fantasize openly on their online forums about murdering the journalists who oppose their president.”

Days before the Capital Gazette murders, the president (as he does at his rallies) bellowed from a South Carolina stage, “Those very dishonest people back there, the fake news. Very dishonest.” One journalist described the atmosphere like this: “An elderly woman came up to me and said that I needed to get the ‘eff’ out. And then she turned to the crowd and whipped them all into a frenzy and they were saying ‘go home Jim, CNN sucks, fake news,’ and so on.”

Having spent a good 2 years drowning in this Trumpian dystopia, you’ll have to forgive me if I can’t get too het up about calls for civility when the White House press secretary is quietly and politely asked to leave a white-tablecloth restaurant.

Thoughts and prayers come to mind.

Easter Sunday, I was pushing my cart through the rural, Lawrenceburg Kroger when I turned a corner and a strange man, no cart and no basket in hand, walked up and grabbed my cart. “Hey there,” he said, standing too close. “You that lady writes for the paper?”

I stood tall as I could. I looked him in the eye. “I am,” I said. He was wearing a frayed baseball hat, an open flannel shirt. Lips pursed, he looked my body up and down like he was getting ready to catcall. “Well,” he finally said, letting go of my cart. “Alright then.”

When I got home, I found my husband out mowing the grass. “Were you scared?” he asked, cutting the engine. “Did he say anything else?”

And I said no it’s fine I’m fine I’m used to it it was creepy he was just mad it felt weird. I said all the things I always say, because I hate it when he worries. And then I went back inside to get Easter dinner going for my family, hands shaking.

No such thing as “other people’s children”

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Photo credit: CBS News

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Like many of you, I woke this morning worrying about other people’s children.

Infants and toddlers and ten and twelve year-olds, stored like cargo in an abandoned Walmart; children sleeping on concrete floors and locked behind chainlink; children thrown-in with strangers under giant, white, revival-like tents along our southern border where June temperatures can reach a hundred.

Yes, our immigration system is broken. It has been broken for years. But it is also a monstrous crime against humanity to rip children from their parents when you do not have a plan beyond basic imprisonment and not enough caretakers.

Is this where you tell me it is a crime to enter our country illegally, that there are consequences? Will you feel better if I tell you that you are right?

Okay, you are right.

But being right does not change fact that the Trump Administration’s policy of separating immigrant families as a deterrent—a policy defended by both the president and his Attorney General Jeff Sessions—is cruel, inhumane, and decidedly unAmerican.

Texas Monthly reports one mother begging, as her “child started screaming and vomiting and crying hysterically, and she asked the officers, ‘Can I at least have five minutes to console her?’ They said no. In another case, the father said, ‘Can I comfort my child? Can I hold him for a few minutes?’ The officer said, ‘You must let them go, and if you don’t let them go, I will write you up for an altercation, which will mean that you are the one that had the additional charges charged against you.’”

The president throws up his hands and inexplicably blames the Democrats. Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham says, “President Trump could stop this policy with a phone call.”

And while everyone is pointing a finger at everyone else, we are inflicting irreparable psychological damage upon the most vulnerable among us. We should all be ashamed.

On Father’s Day, while the president played golf, a few members of Congress and the media toured facilities where children are being warehoused. After one such tour, Jacob Soboroff of MSNBC wrote on Twitter, “They told us we only had 7 minutes to go through a 77,000 square-foot facility. But we stretched it out much longer. They told us this is the biggest border patrol detention center on the southern border. Currently total 1,129 detainees.”

Some facilities would not grant access.

Most would not allow cameras.

Ask yourself why.

Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont tweeted this after touring a place nicknamed The Ice Box: “I saw chain link cages full of unaccompanied children. They sat on metal benches and stared straight ahead silently. And I met a woman named Reina who was being extorted in Guatemala. She traveled 14 days with her 13 year-old daughter and turned herself in at the border for asylum. She hasn’t seen her daughter in two days and didn’t know where she was. No one had told her that her daughter had been taken to a shelter.”

Note that it is not illegal to seek asylum.

The Associated Press reports seeing a four year-old girl “so traumatized that she wasn’t talking. She was just curled up in a little ball.” The AP also reported witnessing a facility official “scold a group of five year-olds for playing around in their cage, telling them to settle down. There are no toys or books, and “one boy nearby wasn’t playing with the rest, he was quiet, clutching a piece of paper that was a photocopy of his mother’s ID card.”

Many of these children are being kept in conditions beneath the standards of the kennel where I take my dogs. Ask yourself, is this what Jesus would do?

This morning I woke up thinking about other people’s children. But I was wrong. There is no such thing as other people’s children. It takes a village, and we are that village.

Flood the White House switchboard. Call your senator and your congressman and insist they work with the other side of the aisle to find reasonable solutions for the border. Tell them they work for you, and that you are enraged and disgusted at the humanitarian crisis this administration has created.

Tell them to act like Americans.

_________

The White House switchboard:  (202) 456-1111

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell:   (202) 224-2541

House Speaker Paul Ryan:  (202) 225-0600

Kentucky Rep. Andy Barr:  (859) 219-1366

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul:  (202) 224-4343

 

 

 

NFL players kneel for peace, but the president wants to fight

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“If we weren’t fighting all those years,” Aunt Mary says with a dismissive laugh, “what would we have done with ourselves all day, played Tiddlywinks?” I am scrubbing her dentures over the nursing home sink as my favorite aunt—dying from stomach cancer while simultaneously recovering from a broken leg—tells story after story about how she and my mother grew up in a family of fighters. “I mean, that was just normal life,” she says, putting her dentures back in, checking her charming smile in the mirror I’ve handed her. “If nobody was mad, what would we have talked about?”

Growing up in a family of fighters, in the land of gossip and grievance, of who-got-what-and-who-didn’t, is exhausting. As much as I loved my aunt, my mother, and my grandparents (all long dead), I also remember just wanting to turn it off and make them stop, and I often wonder if this is why our current president and his Twitter feed feel so sickeningly familiar. So like home.

Much like my grandfather, this president wakes up most days with a bone to pick and stays that way. Fake News! he tweets with his trademark exclamation points. Greatest witch hunt in political history! SPYGATE is in full force! No collusion! The appointment of the Special Counsel is totally UNCONSTITUTIONAL!

Not a day goes by without the president blatting out his every resentment. We are plumb wore out; we want to turn off the noise and go live our lives; we start to think, Jesus already, just give him what he wants and be done with it. But isn’t that, after all, his whole point?

On June 5, the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles cancelled their trip to the White House.

For months, the president has been relentless in criticizing NFL players for kneeling during the National Anthem (exercising their 1st Amendment rights) to bring attention to police brutality and violence against African Americans. He insists they are doing this to dishonor the flag, the military, and the anthem, that maybe they should not even be in this country—a false narrative the president refuses, all evidence to the contrary, to give up—even as he calls them sons-of-bitches.

And, as he predictably does, he took to Twitter to put them in their place. “We will proudly be playing the National Anthem and other wonderful music celebrating our Country today at 3 P.M., The White House, with the United States Marine Band and the United States Army Chorus. Honoring America! NFL, no escaping to Locker Rooms!”

The same day the Eagles stayed away from the White House, police officers in Mesa, Arizona were caught on video brutally beating a black man. While responding to a domestic violence call, officers approached a man—not involved in the dispute—on an open-air balcony as he talked on this phone. At no point does the man raise his hands; he does not reach for anything; he does not approach them nor even lean in their direction. And yet, within seconds, they are on him, brutally beating him into submission.

The Mesa police department issued a statement, which read, in part, “The misconduct of these officers would have gone unnoticed if it had not been captured by surveillance.”

This is why NFL players are kneeling. The president is lying. How easy would it be for him to choose peace, to stop fighting, to call a meeting, to sit down at a table and talk with, listen to, these men? How easy would it be to shine his powerful spotlight away from himself and onto stopping unnecessary acts of violence?

And yet, he does nothing but fan the fight.

Shortly after Trump won the 2016 election, “The Art of the Deal” ghostwriter Tony Schwartz told The Nation magazine what we could expect from our new president. “[He] is 100 percent self-absorbed, incapable of interest in other human beings, and completely self-referential. He viewed every event through the lens of its impact on him. Even 30 years ago, he had an incredibly short attention span. Lying was almost second nature to him; he did it as easily as most of us drink a glass of water.”

I come from a large brood. My grandparents had 9 children. I have 4 brothers and sisters and two dozen cousins. My mother is dead. Aunt Mary is dead. My grandparents are dead. And we are still fighting and exhausted and miserable, because this is all we know to do.

Our president chooses to tweet at NFL players instead of talking with them. Like my grandfather, he wakes up angry and lets us know it, working like mad to keep up his lies about patriotism to stoke the daily drama and the fights.

Why? Because fighting is all he knows. He has no interest in us. Lying is second nature. This is our new normal. And, as Aunt Mary might say with her winning, broad-toothed smile, “If he’s not fighting, what would he do all day?”

Rural women explain Amy McGrath’s big Kentucky win

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Photo credit: Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

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Two weeks after Amy McGrath’s unlikely primary win in Kentucky’s 6th District—notching a W in all 18 rural counties and setting her up for a midterm showdown with GOP incumbent Andy Barr—the potential blue wave we keep hearing about nationally is finally beginning to emerge locally.

I live in Anderson County, a place where voters often feel invisible; a place where Republicans pocket our votes like spare change and Democrats can’t afford to waste their pennies. Seeing candidates out here is as rare as good wifi.

And yet, McGrath held several events here over these last many months, even as voters, skeptical of the attention, often approached her as more foe than friend. What was she doing here? Where was she on guns, on abortion and women’s rights, on healthcare and infrastructure and teacher salaries and pensions, on our horrifying opioid crisis? And if by some miracle she made it past the primary, what was her plan to defeat Barr?

We did our damnedest to rattle her, and failed. She kept coming back.

Billy Piper, former chief of staff to Senator Mitch McConnell, dismissed McGrath’s win outright. “I think that the Democrats,” Piper said, “have nominated the worst possible candidate they could have nominated.”

The worst possible candidate, really? Did Piper have a point? I decided to ask the Kentuckians least likely to be asked by Piper or anyone else: rural women.

Molly, a former schoolteacher: “When Lt. Colonel McGrath agreed to visit with a roomful of Anderson County Democrats early in her campaign I was surprised, but proud. I was also concerned that the ‘real her’ compared to her brilliant candidacy announcement, would be disappointing. But we got the real Amy, and she was great. And the best part? I was able to meet and talk with her five times, without leaving the county, and I met the same real Amy every time. She really did listen and learn.”

Pam, a retired physician: “You don’t have to be a politician to be well-read and well-informed with thoughtful ideas about how to improve our country. Amy broke a glass ceiling, as did her mother, yet does not carry a chip on her shoulder. She seems real when you meet her in person, and I think she can beat the Republican which is important. Plus, we have real infrastructure needs (like high speed internet) which have been ignored.”

Maxye, a former magazine editor: “Amy campaigned in every county in the 6th, and has offices in several of them. She was extremely visible and is very personable. I doubt that any of us has seen, much less met, any of the other candidates in person.”

Sallie, an environmentalist and former technical writer: “Anyone who meets Amy would be hard-pressed not to vote for her. I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered such a powerful mix of earnestness, compassion, intelligence, and vigor. I liked all three of the major Democratic candidates, but she blew me away. She looks you in the eye, she listens, and she doesn’t shy away from expressing an opinion, instead of parroting some mushy political platitude. If she continues to connect personally with both rural and urban voters, I think she has a real chance to beat Andy Barr.”

Margaret, counselor to families suffering from addiction: “Amy focused on our area and the fact that we need to focus on our strengths. She was extremely well-informed and made me feel like she was a centrist. This is how you can win in Kentucky. This is our only hope. She seemed tireless and traveled to every area she could. We support her and will be volunteering to help her.”

Talking to these women, I am reminded of the opening lines in Judith Guest’s 1976 novel, ORDINARY PEOPLE. “To have a reason to get up in the morning, it is necessary to possess a guiding principle. A belief of some kind. A bumper sticker, if you will.”

Billy Piper is wrong. We are believers out here in the rural counties. We have our principles. We count. And we are seeing a lot of bumper stickers that read: Amy McGrath for Congress.

______

You can find more information on Lt. Col. McGrath here.

The Cancer of Columbine

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Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas. Credit KTRK-TV

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There they were in the Breaking News live-shot, terrified American teenagers lined up like criminals on the sprawling green lawn of their high school, following the commands of law enforcement by emptying the contents of their backpacks then doing the perp walk, single file, arms raised high, fingers spread wide, demonstrating their innocence.

Another school shooting. Santa Fe, Texas.

As a New York Times reporter wrote, this is what school looks like now. “Lockdown drills, active shooter drills. It’s a procedure they have learned, and what you are seeing is a kind of horrible field trip, a deadly exam. You send your kids to school, and one of the things they learn is how not to die.”

This summer I will go to my 35 year high school reunion, and it occurs to me that these are the things I worried about from 1979 to 1983: Will I ever get more than a C in Mr. Wittenborn’s science class? How many lunches can I afford this week? What if I don’t make the basketball team and, if I do, how will I get home from practice? Will Shawn ask me to the homecoming dance? Can I fake my mom’s signature on a “this is why she’s late” note? Will John’s Corner Grocery give me a job before I turn 16 so I can save $800 to buy an old green Gremlin?

What I did not worry about, what none of us could fathom back then, was getting gunned down in art class.

“It’s not the guns,” we insist, banking upon our memories of the past. We say things like, “I grew up with guns,” or “we never locked up our guns,” or “I was bullied but I never shot anybody,” or “I drove to school with guns in my truck.”

We cannot fathom getting gunned down in art class because we grew up before April 20, 1999. We grew up before Columbine.

Columbine (and every mass shooting for two decades after) made the unthinkable thinkable. You can do something about the bullies, about feeling like a nobody; you can teach that girl who embarrassed you a lesson; you can put those smug, arrogant jocks in their place; you can gun down the mean teacher. Guns don’t kill people, people kill people, and by-God you’re a boy with easy access to weapons and you know how to use them. You could be famous. And what is more quintessentially American in 2018 than our beloved 2nd Amendment paired with the fantasy of eternal fame?

Columbine was our Stage I cancer, and it keeps metastasizing and killing us because we have made a choice to wrap ourselves in the constitution and do nothing.

After the mass shooting in Santa Fe, when asked if she was surprised it happened at her school, one little girl said heartbreakingly no, “It’s been happening everywhere. I’ve always kind of felt like eventually it was going to happen here too.”

As if on cue, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick then said, “There are too many entrances and too many exits to our over 8,000 campuses …maybe we need to look at limiting the entrances and exits to our schools.”

When I heard this, I imagined the horrified reaction of my friend Kim, a retired fire chief. Kim, who scared me into rarely lighting candles and warned about the dangers of portable propane. What would he say about a thousand kids and teachers locked in a giant building with only one or two ways out?

On Sunday, Lt. Gov. Patrick told CNN, “We stand strong together on the rock of faith and the rock of our constitution. We believe in our freedom and our liberties and our 2nd Amendment.”

And yet, mass shootings are as all-American as baseball. Is this freedom? Our kids are afraid to go to school, and we are afraid to send them. We are willing to consider arming teachers, limiting the number of doors, putting more police officers on campus, retrofitting entrances and exits, clear backpacks, kevlar backpacks, metal detectors, bulletproof glass, and new and improved lockdown drills.

We are willing to consider turning our schools into prisons. We are willing to consider everything. Everything but guns.